Author of 'Drug Use for Grown Ups' talks freedom, empathy and 'calling it as you see it'
Carl Hart is a nationally renowned psychologist and neuroscientist who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wyoming. Last year, he published the book Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear. In it, he advocates for drug legalization and an end to the War on Drugs. He also comes out of the closet as an avid drug user himself, writing that drug use can be a rational, positive and safe part of one's pursuit of happiness. Wyoming Public Radio's Jeff Victor asked him why most Americans tend not to see it that way.
Carl Hart: In large part because of what we've done. We've skillfully attached the activity of drug-taking behavior with groups we don't like. And so when you do that, one of the things you can do is that you get people to sacrifice their freedoms when you attach an activity that you're going to go after with a group you don't like. We do that with terror. We have all of these rights that we've sacrificed with the Patriot Act, all of these rights at the airport, all of these rights sacrificed because the government skillfully connected the behavior they wanted to control with a group that everybody agreed we didn't like. And so, we did that with drugs. When the country was freely saying they didn't like Black people, they didn't like Chinese folks, Mexican people, Germans, we attached these behaviors to those groups that we didn't like. And therefore the country was willing to sacrifice that freedom. It was like a wink-and-nod. The original laws were such that people who were in the know - well-connected middle class and upper class white folks - could still get their drugs, still enjoy their drugs. But for the broader society, they would be restricted such that these people that we really don't like don't get that freedom.
Jeff Victor: In the spirit of talking about drugs in a more positive light, I wanted to ask you about heroin. You write that it's basically your drug of choice, at least for now. Assuming that hasn't changed in the year since your book was published, what is it about heroin, or opioids, that make it your drug of choice?
CH: Did I say it was my drug of choice? Maybe that was tongue in cheek. Because what I like to say about 'drugs of choice' is it depends on what I'm seeking for the moment. If I'm with my wife, I'd like to do a psychoactive substance. It wouldn't be heroin if I had my choice. It would be something like MDMA or even cocaine, but not heroin. But if I am in a moment of feeling like I have to think about my day, be forgiving of people, be more magnanimous - but these are my private moments - then heroin would be fine. But in a party setting, not heroin. Or with a loved one who I'm trying to connect with intimately, it would not be heroin.
JV: Different drugs for different experiences or different occasions.
CH: Absolutely. Just like when we wake up in the morning, we don't seek alcohol; we seek caffeine. Later at night, we don't seek caffeine right? We seek something like alcohol, or something else. Same kind of thing.
JV: You wrote something that really resonated with me. You said your drug use had made you a better person, more able to handle the stresses of life, and perhaps more forgiving, or more loving, in certain contexts. When I was 18 and tried alcohol for the first time, I had been a shy, kind of socially anxious kid, but then, trying alcohol, it made me more outgoing - you know, more comfortable talking to strangers or dancing, stuff like that. And just having that experience, and knowing that that was available to me, then I could try to cultivate that in the rest of my life. And I think it's made me more outgoing, just kind of knowing that that was available. So, I'm wondering if you had similar experiences to that, or if you could elaborate on what you meant by writing, 'I am better for my drug use.'
CH: Just take a drug like 6-APB or MDMA - those drugs are known to enhance empathy, if you will. I'm using that word loosely because your ability to empathize is based on your maturity level. But if I'm thinking of myself, it's in terms of being able to see things from other people's perspective, being able to think about the impact of my behavior on the person's subsequent behavior with their loved ones. And I want to make sure that my own interactions with this person doesn't negatively influence the interactions that they have with their loved ones. So, I can think about all of these things. So when I think about my drug use and when I am in a state of feeling magnanimous, introspective, forgiving, I think I'm a better person because there's a far less greater chance of me being a jerk to someone - particularly when I'm thinking about, 'Oh my god, I have to make sure that my interaction doesn't negatively influence this person's interactions with their kids.' And so I have discovered these kinds of things, or I do these things better when I'm altered with certain substances. And so that's what I meant. It just makes me think twice and reflect on how that person is experiencing this interaction.
JV: So your book Drug Use for Grown-Ups just came out in paperback, but the hardcover and the e-book have been out for a year. In that time, have you faced repercussions for coming out as a drug user?
CH: It's a hard question for me to answer because if you pay attention to any of the press, I got a lot of pushback. I got a lot of love, of course, but I got pushback from some corners that I didn't expect, particularly from left-leaning writers. And who I'm talking about primarily are psychedelic users, who are typically white males. And the ones who want to act as if drugs like LSD, psilocybin - those kinds of drugs - are special and they are different from cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. And so I got push back from that crowd, and that crowd are writers and so their influence is outsized. And so when you say repercussions, I guess that's a repercussion that I was not expecting. I mean, it's cool because I'm glad I can expose that group. But in terms of other things, for example, there was the University of Central Florida. Even before this book came out, with just the things I was saying, like, 'I'd rather have my kids interact with drugs than interact with police.' Well, they disinvited me from giving a talk. So those kinds of things happened. But those kinds of repercussions, I'll live with that, because I live free and there is no price I'm not willing to pay for my freedom. So there are repercussions for calling it as you see it, as bluntly and candidly as you can. I'm not trying to hurt anyone's feelings, but I'm not going to bite my tongue to spare somebody's feelings when so many people are suffering as a result.
JV: Did you experience any repercussions in your personal life or did everyone close to you already know?
CH: Not many people knew besides my wife and my immediate family. Like my father didn't know. My mother didn't know. But my father was like, 'Right on. That's what you do, you tell the truth and you call it like you see it.' So no, no repercussions in my personal life, not like that. But they didn't know. They were as shocked as everybody else. But they know me and they know that I am one of the most responsible people you've ever met. And they know that I am fastidious and that I take care in everything I do. So they know that I'm good either way.
JV: Other people might not be as brave as you, and you encourage other professionals, people who are at less risk of marginalization, to come out of the closet with their own drug use. How can a teacher, or a handyman, or a public radio reporter find the bravery to come out of the closet when there could be professional or personal consequences?
CH: I think the first thing is that everybody can come out in their own way. So I came out in this sort of national-stage way. That's what people see. But everybody doesn't have the same kind of platform, doesn't have thirty years of research experience in this area like I have. So it will look different for other people, and that's what other people have to understand. For example, some people may say, 'Look, I'm telling my closest friends, and that's a step for me.' Other people may be like, 'I'm telling my employer.' Other people may do it in a different way. But the thing is, is that everyone has to think about the role that they're playing - their sort of disguising, their being in the closet - and what role does that play in perpetuating this dishonesty, this nonsense? And so if everyone is just simply facing that question, they'll figure out what's best for them, in terms of chipping away at the hypocrisy.